In 2009, I had the opportunity to tour the Ball Seed Demonstration Gardens in West Chicago. There I learned that one of the cutting edge plant trends was to be growing succulents. Really? If I had been in the desert southwest, this would not have surprised me; but for northern Illinois, this was unexpected.
Fast forward to more recent times, and succulents are now mentioned as an extremely popular gardening activity.
Succulents can be an important addition to your outdoor garden design plan. They can be displayed individually, in groups, or integrated into perennial or native plantings. Shallow pots and bowls of succulents make great decorative accents for your patio.
What exactly is a succulent? A succulent is a plant that has the capacity to store volumes of water in thickened stems or leaves. The ability to successfully store water allows it to go for longer periods of time without frequent watering. This large group of plants also includes cactus.
Succulents are not difficult to grow. They need an alkaline soil which is easy to get in a bag of cactus soil available at any nursery or big box store. They prefer bright light but not full sun and outdoor shelter of a tree or patio overhang. Proper drainage is important. Let your soil dry out completely between waterings. The easiest way to kill a succulent is over watering.
Hardy succulents can provide visual interest and color throughout the gardening season. Sedums, euphorbias and sempervivans are three families of succulent plants that will tolerate our Zone 5 temperatures.
The seasonal display begins with the euphorbia family. The cushion spurge groundcover blooms with lemon yellow flowers in May and June. It is followed by orange/red ‘Bonfire’ in June and ‘Fireglow’ in July.
From July to October, the sedums take center state. ‘Dragon’s Blood’ is a small groundcover with maximum impact presenting pink flowers and striking red fall foliage. Taller sedums in this family include ‘Autumn Fire’ a three-foot favorite of butterflies and bees and ‘Matrona’ with pink flowers atop a beautiful combination of blue green leaves and burgundy stems.
The sempervivans family most well known member is ‘Hens and Chicks.’ Its rosette shape and smaller size are perfect for rock gardens.
Annual portulaca makes a great companion to succulent displays offering bright colors and similar water requirements. The photo of the flower cart is an example of this.
If you want to enjoy a greater variety of succulents, you can consider creating a container garden that can be displayed outside in the summer and brought back inside for winter protection. A bright location near a window or on a windowsill and continuing to water only when necessary will make your succulent a happy indoor resident.
Succulents fit nicely into today’s busy life style. They are easy to care for and environmentally friendly due to their low water usage. Their many color, shape and texture options provide us with lots of choices.
Beware! Exploring, collecting and displaying succulents can be addictive. Welcome to the exciting and interesting world of succulents.
Barb Lindholm – University of Illinois Extension, DeKalb County Master Gardener
Photos courtesy of Bob Lindholm
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